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Remembering the Jehovah’s Witnesses

Remembering the Jehovah’s Witnesses

I’m not yet ready to write about the loss of my old friend Lee, but I will soon. Learning that he died from complications of a hospital staph infection has brought back thoughts about the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in which we both grew up – or… er… started to grow up. As much as I’ve ranted about the Witnesses on this blog, those experiences have given me so many reference points in my own experience that I can’t bring myself to regret them. Maybe – if the idea of reincarnation has any truth to it – I might even have chosen it, to learn some deep difficult lessons. I’ve been revising this post for four days, and it has turned into one long honker of an essay, but I hope it’s worth the read. It might be easier for you to print it.

The first wash of memory was tied to experiences with specific people. Good, bad, ugly, sweet – they won’t mean anything to a reader unless they were narrated at greater depth than I can do here, or perhaps fictionalized (that’s not out of the question). There were some kind and wonderful people – real people, despite everything. They weren’t always the most obvious candidates. Sometimes it even seemed like there was an inverse relationship between “service” in their sense and the character of the person.

Service never, never means caring for the poor, donating to charity, volunteering, following a calling, or anything that would otherwise be considered an act of service. Service only means “spreading the good news of God’s kingdom,” “placing” magazines and books, turning people into bible or book “studies,” or building a Kingdom Hall (don’t call it a church) for the organization. Sometimes the “friends” will help each other out, sometimes not – but they do not accept any obligation in the public sphere to any human as human.

I remembered the words and music of the “Kingdom Songs.” Oh, don’t call them “hymns”! “Dear Shulamite maiden, so lovely and fair/ your spiritual virtues are many and rare” – and the song we sang at night “we sing this tuneful melody and sing the notes in harmony / for no one else but you could be so worthy of our praise.” “Firm and determined in this time of the end / prepared are God’s servants the good news to defend…” What was it about those songs? Little bits of them still come to me at the oddest times. I’m glad there is a new collection with which I’m unfamiliar.

OH, then the language! The strange contagious weapons of language! Everything “worldly” (non-JW) was of “Satan the devil.” Never just Satan, always “Satan the devil” as though there were a million other satans. All that power discourse of slavery and domination – the district and circuit “overseers.” “Ministerial servants” – literally “serving servants,” used just to avoid words from other communities, like deacon. All the ranks of pioneers and publishers (how odd is that)!

Not “grace” – never, ever “grace” but only “undeserved kindness.” This so diminishes the idea of God, not to mention taking all the meaning from the “good news.” They’ve missed the whole point, I think.

Not “the second coming,” but instead “the presence.” What does that even mean? Is Jesus hovering in the ozone layer?

And here is the “Kingdom,” stripped of any sense that it could be within. What’s left is only a cold “theocratic” rule on earth, God’s “system of things” to be ushered in after the destruction of governments and the wicked (almost everyone, except of course baptised Witnesses in good standing).

By definition, anyone who rejects the JWs rejects God. All other religions are part of “Babylon the Great.” Babylon the Great… the Harlot.. the great evil of world religions, or the U.N., or the Catholic church, or the soon to be here one-world government, or the soon to be here one-world single religion, or… Rome (as many scholars would say).

We were persecuted! Not really, but any criticism was taken as persecution to prove we must be right.

We were special! Kind of special, not as special as the remnant, the 144,000 (who were not of the 12 tribes of Israel, that’s only symbolic), who could “partake” of communion the “emblems” of the Last Supper memorial dinner and rule as kings (that’s literal) with Jesus (in a heavenly democracy? unlikely, maybe a court?) over the “cleansed” earth.

Still, we’re certainly WAY better than those “worldly” people (every insecure group needs a scapegoat, don’t they?).

We’re the Great Crowd! We’re Grrrrreat (cue in Tony the Tiger)! Compared to the world population the “great crowd” is rather small, but there’s a lot more than 144,000! Who wants to be in heaven anyway? We get to live forever on Paradise Earth! Um, well, not counting the still-another final judgment after the thousand-year… reich?

In the “new system of things,” also called “the new world order” (no, not kidding), “things” will be different! After we pick up those pesky bones, we’ll live in an agrarian society full of baskets of fruit, and wild animals walking around harming no-one, and blind ones who can see again, and everyone will have a vapid smile on their face.

There will be no crying, and no sex or children, and no technology – not even the Watchtower and Awake magazines! And by the way, which mansion are you going to pick? I’ve got my eye on that one – truly the worldy people there don’t deserve it.

Watch out for the demonic smurfs! Don’t buy things at yard sales – they could be possessed! Don’t eat Milky Way bars – they have BLOOD in them!

Pray not to need a blood transfusion, unless you want to prove your faithfulness, perhaps unto death. For those about to die, we salute you! But over the years, “new light,” and a little science, and a lot of court cases have revealed some blood “products” might be acceptable now. Which ones? Better not risk it. Just be proud of those brave JWs who resisted the world and its courts in God’s name to ensure lots and lots and lots of death.

Watchtower Building at the Brooklyn Bridge The Watchtower, the Society, the Truth, the Organization, the Governing Body, the “wise and faithful servant” or the “faithful and discreet slave,” Bethel, the publishing house – in other words, the (various) headquarters for the company – was presented as, and believed to be, God’s channel – the only one on the planet. I guess Jesus had an underground station. Best not to investigate since apostates might infect you.

The Society (this was internal shorthand, and I think it’s dated now) was a shadowy group. Questions about its history were discouraged, and most people never questioned it at all. We just accepted that an ever-changing group of men in New York had “new light” (delivered…how? some say by angel!) about the unchanging and eternal Truth. It could really cause a lot of suffering if you happened to believe the “right” thing at the “wrong” time, or the “wrong” thing at the “right” time. Ask them about it in Malawi. Or ask the people that thought the end would come in 1975.

We thought we were following God’s plan, but there was always a tickling cognitive dissonance about being a slave to the organization. Does God really care about service timesheets? Really? Can you “earn” God’s love by spreading the good news? What is the content of this good news, really? Is there anything “good” about it, in their interpretation? Is there any authentic spiritual development or truth involved in the simple obligation to preach to every last person so that they have a last chance to know, and to choose God’s organization, lest they be destroyed and miss out on this Paradise Earth scenario?

A very paradoxical representation of “Jehovah” (YHWH) was really the anchor of the belief system. There is a sense in which it’s correct to call Jehovah’s Witnesses “Jehovists” rather than “Christians.” When they were called “International Bible Students,” the bible might have been fetishized, but at least a mission of learning was inherent.

There is no theology of a trinity. Any JW can give you the entire lecture about how a trinity isn’t scriptural – it’s one of the top ten! Here’s my take on it:

Jesus was only a man, a very special man. Jesus was the ransom sacrifice mysteriously required of the only-begotten son of God. Jesus was the temporary holder of the holy spirit “active force of God’s will.” Jesus was also – and this is fun – Michael the Archangel. Archangel Michael/Jesus became a man, and then stopped being a man and became an angel again, and his “presence” is right back here NOW (since 1914? or has that date changed, too?). Michael is strangely at the same basic level as Lucifer and Gabriel and other archangels, so how is he God’s son? Why aren’t the other archangels considered to be sons? Hey, wait! When did angels get gender? Where then are the female angels?

Don’t think about it. The Society says that God had to be talking to someone at creation when he said “let us.” “Elohim” is only plural in a grammatical, not real, way. Right? How was God’s son Jesus “begotten” if he was already begotten before incarnating being born on earth? Reproducing gods are so pagan, and there is obviously no divine feminine. Right?

In practice, Jesus was just the “mediator” for prayers to get routed to the right God mailbox, a name invoked in a unconsciously-magical chant. I don’t remember anyone ever calling on Jesus, or expressing love for Jesus – only praying “in the name of your son Christ Jesus Amen.”

Jesus was a kind of space alien, the Lord’s overseer for this garden experiment “territory” called the earth. I always wondered about the overseers of other planets. After all, God actually lived in a specific star system, on a giant throne – the Society said so!

How easily we just absorbed the language and the ideas, no matter how strange! The mind-numbing repetition helped a lot – that’s why going to multiple, tediously long and boring weekly meetings was necessary. Not much fellowship there, just rote learning. And of course, everyone talked like that, so you couldn’t help but pick it up, like any other in-group rhetoric, dude. Re-framing the language was not allowed, and deviations from the accepted vocabulary would mark you.

Is it any wonder that I became fascinated with the effects of language?

Speaking of effects, that reminds me that I also remember watching children being dragged outside or into the basement of the Kingdom Hall for discipline. Spare the rod (literal), spoil the child. Without grace, you were always trying to measure up to an impossible standard of perfection, and frustrated adults would often raise the bar (figurative, except for a couple of extreme cases) for children, not understanding much about child development.

My very favorite memory is about how a way opened that allowed me to know who I could trust and respect in my congregation. This was a major event for me – the appearance of spiritual ok-ness that has continued to inform me even now. It was during an ending prayer on a Sunday. We would sometimes go out after the two-hour meeting for lunch; this was a big treat. My baby brother (he *was* just a baby, maybe two or three years old) shouted out “WHEN are we going to get some KUCKY F*CKY CHICKen?!?” Obviously, he was talking about Kentucky Fried Chicken – but the volume, the uncontrollable nature of it, the unintended profanity!

I put my hand up over my mouth and tried so hard not to make a sound. I peeked up and looked around the room – and I suddenly understood that the congregation was divided in kind. Some were furious, frowning, clenching their fists – which is what I expected. Others simply ignored it, which was at least mature. But there was a third group – and I took note and remembered for *ever* the ones who had a hand over their mouth, or who were shaking with repressed laughter or who had heads bowed, but were grinning. Three people were openly looking at my brother with smiles, and one even caught MY eye – during a prayer! – shaking his head and smiling. The scary ones, the ones I knew to be bad people and hypocrites, no matter what anyone said, were all of the first group. Ever since, I have deeply valued a sense of humor, and the perspective of kindness that it sometimes allows, as a touchstone for ethics.

Meanwhile, pedophiles and other abusers were often known, and usually protected. Statistically, there are more abusers and predators among Jehovah’s Witnesses than in any other religion that isn’t generally considered a cult. There are reasons for that. But why would they be protected? “To protect God’s name.” Their reputation as a religious group is more important than the well-being of their members, who are only bits of a largely-disposable free sales force (ask what happens to their workers when they get old).

There were so few responsible men, you see. It was pitifully easy for men to “rise in the organization.” They didn’t receive or need any real theological or pastoral training. The sermons lectures talks were pretty much outlined in communications from HQ. Anyone (male) could do it. Since college was *heavily* discouraged, power positions in the organization also functioned as a compensation for the lack of a meaningful career. It was amazing sometimes how they would get drunk on their “service” and “responsibilities,” especially where it entered into women’s lives. It was a dangerous but required game to “submit yourself” to the elders, just as it was a dangerous but required game for wives to “submit” to their husbands. In theory, a man should love his wife as himself, and an elder love the congregation. But this was a very high standard, especially for such (generally) non-insightful and legalistic men.

Women are not protected as much as male predators and abusers are. The daughters of Eve are of course inherently more inclined to evil, although they outnumber the men in the congregation. This made it even more difficult for women or children to go to the elders to report abuse of any kind. The “two-witness or call it slander” rule meant that going to the elders for help might mean that you would be disfellowshipped yourself for reporting it. Normally, reporting on each other was pretty much a matter of course – a built-in panopticon, the secret police of your friends and family. But “friends” were discouraged from going to any satanic worldly authorities, like therapists or police or women’s shelters. By the time I was raped, I already knew enough not to go to the elders for “guidance.”

The “theocratic strategy” (lying to “worldly” authorities) was and is an active principle – courts take note – and JWs have an impressive team of lawyers, who presumably were allowed to go to college. They will even intervene in divorce cases, especially when child custody is at stake.

That irony always bothered me very much: that every little rule could destroy your world, and yet gigantic issues couldn’t be dealt with or even questioned – especially from a female perspective. Dating was only allowed with an eye to marriage, and you didn’t want to risk being “unevenly yoked” with a worldly person. You’d lose all status in the congregation that way. The “gray areas” or “matters of conscience” were heavily surrounded with “guidance” from the Watchtower Society. I remember a time when they were obsessed with oral sex, and spouses were reporting on each other for “asking”! Homosexuality… well, don’t even go there. But somehow physical spiritual emotional and sexual abuse – even toward children – was treated differently.

My own experiences were minor, really. I was reprimanded for being in a high school play of Fiddler on the Roof because it had a dream sequence with a “depiction of the supernatural,” not to mention the general exhibitionism. This was the same year that JW Michael Jackson released the “Thriller” video. I started asking some questions and instead of answers, I got labelled “rebellious youth.”

Rumors flew – JWS are great gossipers! – and I got hauled up before the elders again. This time I was accused of sexual misconduct. Supposedly I had been all over the state sleeping with “brothers” in every possible congregation (on my bicycle?). The truth was, I was a virgin – but not for nearly long enough after that, since I stopped caring about it after what happened. Looking back, that was the most damaging part, that loss of self-dignity and self-value. I wasn’t allowed to confront my accusers, although I found out later that it relied completely on malicious gossip, with not one confession or witness involved – yet pedophiles and abusers required two witnesses to the act before there would be any investigation, much less any “disciplinary action.”

I asked myself why they thought it was acceptable and right for grown men to surround a young girl, intimidating her and accusing her of lies. I didn’t think their actions were even in alignment with their own rules. It felt – and I think it was somehow – personal. Events after that, mostly concerning how other people were treated, finally convinced me that the fruits of the spirit were only to be found as exceptions to the rule among Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s not completely their fault. Their priorities are seriously disordered, and intentionally so. It gives special meaning to Leonard Cohen’s song “The Future“: When the prophets said “repent,” I too wonder what they really, truly meant. Surely not this.

The self-righteousness training backfired on them in my case. I could not in good conscience commit to being baptised (the symbol of my dedicated vow to serve Jehovah and his organization). Sure, I enjoyed explaining exactly why I didn’t salute the flag. I loved feeling that God was on my side. I loved being a possessor of “the Truth” and being “in the Truth.” I even believed that this evil satanic system of things could end at any moment. But…

I was also a bookworm, and I loved to dance and to sing. And – I so valued kindness. I so valued caring and love and understanding. Eventually, the very training that they gave me in having the courage and integrity to stand up for what I truly believe made it possible (with curiosity, knowledge, imagination, creativity and humor) for me to leave. I took the easy road, and left town to go to college on scholarship.

What a flashback it was in graduate school to face a faculty that had already decided to dismantle the program of Literature and Religion when my advisor had a stroke. They called a meeting to “get feedback” from the students. It was amazing how fast colleagues had abandoned ship. When I tried to argue for the merits of the program, the faces of the faculty members held the same expressions as those elders so long ago. For a while, it seemed like I was back in that same helpless, unfairly-judged space again. I thought I was getting “the intellectual life,” but these dynamics can appear anywhere, anywhere at all – even in my adopted community of academe, toward which I was so idealistic.

You have to deal with ignorance and injustice and resentment and hate and insecurity and all of the rest directly and at the time. That’s the way in which teaching and ethics and politics are all local. I would have handled things differently knowing what I know now. I understand their perspectives (in both cases) better now, and wouldn’t have set myself up by being defensive and letting my fears be so visible and easily-read.

It’s not always wise to stand up to a bully, but smarts often beats thugness. Among people who seem to lack empathy, stories and humor are the only methods that have any chance of getting through. Sometimes it’s not really worth the effort – or the effects – even to try, but one thing is certain: the argument “but it’s not fair” is not one that ever works. You can’t assume – ever – that anyone will understand why it’s not fair. Just skip that part. Try logic if you like, but logic does not engender empathy. Let logic be implicit.

Obvious sectors of the American political landscape remind me so much of what was so unkind (and so self-righteous, misinformed and manipulated) about the (enforced/reinforced) mentality that so affected my life and those of others. I am heartened when I see healers and thinkers and storytellers, but there are not nearly enough of them, not nearly. Their voices are shut down whenever possible. Sometimes our future looks very dark. I cannot read The Handmaid’s Tale again in this atmosphere; just remembering it makes me cry.

How could I ever have thought that “theocracy” was a good thing? The mentality is global now – almost every religion has an active fanatical wing. Christians, Muslims, Jews, even Buddhists? Say it isn’t so. What happened to the virtue of humility? What happened – in America the Beautiful – to the wise separation of church and state that has been one of the foundations for both to thrive? Power-mongers, corruption, mass manipulation. It’s sad… and shameful.

Lingering effects… I still don’t salute the flag. I know the history, and I just feel that it’s a creepy way to show love for your country. I do vote now, though, and I’m kind of relieved that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t.

I still have a kind of hyper-conscience about community memberships. I don’t feel comfortable participating in communities if I’m not in agreement with every little thing that a particular group believes. I’ve become aware that this is actually a holdover effect, but this has meant that I’m basically a non-joiner (my natural mode is critical). I’m getting better about allowing myself some leeway that since I’ve seen – and experienced – the value of accepting people and situations as they are, unless they are destructive. I am not so distrustful as I used to be, nor as insecure or defensive, and that helps enormously.

I’ve made peace with that me-girl who so desperately needed someone to tell her that it was going to be ok and that she was loved and that the cosmos only asked for her authenticity and her ethic of caring. Her God was a such a cruel, heartless God.

“Independent thinking” was against her religion, but everything inside told her that it would be wrong not to think and ask questions. She didn’t run toward, but away, from the Kingdom Hall to find spiritual dwelling places. Being a JW kept her – for a while – from heading toward the path that was always at the core of her being. Isolation, paranoia, the insecurity/superiority flip – all of these were stumbling blocks. And friends? Sisters and brothers? There *were* friends and sisters and brothers among the members of the Watchtower Society, but many more false friends and Pharisees. Not trying to sound like Job or anything – just sayin’.

That girl found somewhere to be, somewhere to find connection, always – in the woods, the song, the dance, the book. She was always going to be nurtured somehow; it was intuitive, and for that gift I am ever-more grateful. Because of that private set of communion-paths, I wasn’t damaged in some of the ways that I’ve seen among some of the other ex-JWs I’ve known. It took many more years to find authentic connection in relationship, but the starting place was observation, watching people as characters instead of threats, listening to a range of perspectives and voices – especially to the ones that weren’t just nightmarish variations on familiar themes.

Because of the new communication and information resources of the internet, I’ve also discovered that I was never alone in this. There were, and are, others. Some of these went on to higher education, some became singers or musicians or artists or writers or comedians (yes!), some became caregivers in real service to all kinds of people, some started a business or found a soul-mate or travelled the world. Some developed compassion and their own ethical sense (often a much better one). Some kept the evangelism, or even the fundamentalism, but became involved with another religious community that was more rewarding to them. Others became freethinkers and atheists, or goddess-women, pagans, wiccans. Some – sadly – have not yet found another way to be, or are so hurt and isolated and scapegoated and abandoned that their road will be a very difficult one. Some – realistically – never were very interesting people, and still aren’t. There is no one thing that describes former JWs, certainly not the attribute of being “demonic.” Sigh.

The path that brought me to value openness and attunement has been admittedly eclectic (even mystical), but it is imbued with a sensitivity to kindness and justice that I feel all the prophets tried to convey. I lean towards more compassion than I naturally possess – as though it were the sun. I dream with more freedom than I’ll ever have – just like the moon.

There are wisps of fondness for some members of that community still. There are people that I could love better now than I did then, and I am so sad about the loss of the people they might have become were it not for the stranglehold of the JWs. I will always cherish each one’s essential person in my heart, their ‘ness. Sometimes, I pray for them. Still I wonder (yes I wonder) if anyone is listening.

I’ve seen the nations rise and fall
I’ve heard their stories, heard them all
but love’s the only engine of survival. ~ Leonard Cohen, “The Future”


JWs: From Bible Students to Slaves

JWs: From Bible Students to Slaves

Under founder Charles Taze Russell, “International Bible Students” were somewhat anti-organizational, centered on personal study of the Bible.

Watchtower, Sept. 15, 1895, p. 216.
Beware of ‘organization.’ It is wholly unnecessary. The Bible rules will be the only rules you will need. Do not seek to bind others’ consciences, and do not permit others to bind yours. Believe and obey so far as you can understand God’s Word today.

A couple of years after Russell’s death, that view was already in transition to its opposite:

Watchtower, April 1, 1920, pp. 100-101.
We would not refuse to treat one as a brother because he did not believe the Society is the Lord’s channel. If others see it in a different way, that is their priviledge. There should be full liberty of conscience.

Russell’s successor Judge Joseph Rutherford was well-known for his exclamation that “religion is a snare and a racket.” Nonetheless, his first move was to claim the Society as the Lord’s “channel,” while still holding onto liberty of conscience and brotherly, agapic love.

The “Judge” changed the name of the group to “Jehovah’s Witnesses” in 1931, and it was only after this that they stopped celebrating holidays and using the cross as a symbol. While they did move away from following any particular human leader (as some had followed Pastor Russell), the organization did something much worse: they claimed to be God’s only voice and actual visible presence in the world. Since then, they have been focused on advertising work. Evangelical marketing. Viral spread.

Instead of being submissive to God alone, JWs are submissive to the Governing Body of the Watch Tower (or Watchtower) Society. Criticism and debate are prohibited and classified as apostate, demonic, pornographic. They equate questioning of the organization with Satan’s rebellion against God, while actually accusing the questioner of hubris! Amazing. There is no discussion of how this Governing Body actually gets its direction from God, but to question them is to question God; it’s unthinkable for the average JW to do so.

For all their “anti-worldly” talk, the Watchtower Society has built a lucrative publishing empire with a dedicated salesforce of unpaid associates – an unquestioning set of followers to spread the memes.

In answer to a reader’s question (thank you, Kathy S!), JWs are no longer forbidden to use the Internet. Their work has always gone hand-in-hand with “wordly” technological advances – they really aren’t Luddites. For obvious reasons, JWs were very resistent to the Internet at first, but after some time they gave up and simply gave the same kind of warnings that they would issue with regard to any other kind of publication or interaction: Stay away from worldly influences, don’t look at porn, don’t read information that opposes the Society, and so on. They have a great legal team. They have been able to strongarm a couple of opposing sites off the net with copyright issues, but they really can’t control the information that is out there. The Society set up their own official website, and the PR site, and advised their people not to attempt to represent the Society or its teachings in any way. They are doing damage control at assemblies and through their publications, casting any critical voices in the usual terms.

They are not opposed to using outside sources of information, just so long as they are selectively filtered and approved by the Governing Body of the Watchtower Society – but their outside source selections and interpretations of them are as cherry-picked as the evidence to go to war in Iraq.

The perceptions and insights of others, even of their own people, don’t count at all. Human life is subordinated to the controlling doctrines – which are loaded with special terminology, cliches, and code phrases that trigger reactions even in people who have left the group.

Attempts at authentic personal study and discovery are squelched, and dismissed as Satanic. Higher education is discouraged, and research is conducted only by authorized persons of the corporation. Rank and file JWs will not even supplement the materials of the publications with studies in languages, archeology, textual analysis, sociology, or pastoral counselling. They are not “bible students” or “ministers” – they are slaves of a corporation.

The Watchtower is not the instrument of any man or any set of men, nor is it published according to the whims of men. No man’s opinion is expressed in The Watchtower. – Watchtower, November 1, 1937, p.327.

God uses The Watchtower to communicate to his people: it does not consist of men’s opinions. – Watchtower, January 1, 1942, p. 5.

Theocratic ones will appreciate the Lord’s visible organization and not be so foolish as to pit against Jehovah’s channel their own human reasoning and sentiment and personal feelings.” – Watchtower, February 1, 1952, p. 80

Newcomers must learn to fall in line with the principles and policies of the New World society and act in harmony with them. Sometimes it becomes rather difficult for some of our new associates to make the change. They are prone to be a little rebellious or unruly. But to become genuinely a part of the New World society it is Imperative that proper respect for theocratic arrangement and order be shown. A humble, obedient mental attitude is required. – Watchtower, June 1, 1956, p. 345.

Who controls the organization, who directs it? Who is at the head? A man? A group of men? A clergy class? A pope? A hierarchy? A council? No, none of these. How is that possible? In any organization is it not necessary that there be a directing head or policy-making part that controls or guides the organization? Yes. Is the living God, Jehovah, the Director of the theocratic Christian organization? Yes! – Watchtower, November 1, 1956, p. 666.

Only this organization functions for Jehovah’s purpose and to his praise. To it alone God’s Sacred Word, the Bible, is not a sealed book. – Watchtower, July 1, 1973, p. 402.

Avoid Independent Thinking
From the very outset of his rebellion Satan called into question God’s way of doing things. He promoted independent thinking. ‘You can decide for yourself what is good and bad,’ Satan told Eve. ‘You don’t have to listen to God. He is not really telling you the truth.’ (Genesis 3:1-5) To this day, it has been Satan’s subtle design to infect God’s people with this type of thinking.—2 Timothy 3:1, 13.

How is such independent thinking manifested? A common way is by questioning the counsel that is provided by God’s visible organization. For example, God’s organization has from time to time given warnings about listening to certain types of immoral and suggestive music, and about frequenting discos and other types of worldly dance halls where such music is played and people are known to engage in immoral conduct. (1 Corinthians 15:33) Yet certain ones have professed to know better. They have rebelled against such counsel and have done what is right in their own eyes. With what result? Very often they have become involved in sexual immorality and have suffered severe spiritual harm. But even if they have not been so affected, are they not reprehensible if others follow their example and suffer bad consequences?—Matthew 18:6.

This fact cannot be overemphasized: We are in a war with superhuman foes, and we constantly need to be aware of this. Satan and his demons are real; they are not mere figments of the imagination. They are “the world rulers of this darkness,” and we have a spiritual fight against them. (Ephesians 6:12) It is absolutely vital that we recognize their subtle designs and not allow ourselves to be overreached by them. Very appropriately, then, we will next consider how we can arm ourselves to fight against these wicked spirits. – Watchtower, January 15, 1983, pp. 18-22, “Exposing the Devil’s Subtle Designs”

They rigorously promote the idea that any questioning or “independent thinking” is evil by definition. I hope a few ex-JWS (and current JWS too) have been watching the Frontline series “From Jesus to Christ” to get an idea of the range of some of the information they’ve been missing.

Actually, as I observe the sad collection of fanaticisms that pass for Christianity in America today, I hope much of the country was able to catch at least part of the series.

For such a prideful organization, an organization that has taken the place of God for so many, to equate discussion and debate and inquiry with Satanic rebellion, shows just how far from authentic spirituality they have strayed. JWs have lost the critical capacity even to see this contradiction, which negates their own historical aims. They have become much of what they had opposed. Now one could argue that in some ways they worship the organization, the governing body of the Watchtower Society, as much or more than they worship God. It’s a form of idolatry based on very very shaky biblical interpretation.

Jehovah’s Witness Elders

Jehovah’s Witness Elders

This short article by Victoria Cater gives another common example of what the Watchtower Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) does to families. This is typical of the kinds of situations I remember and hear about from people who write to me for advice.

The first claim – that her father was kicked out for not giving up weekends with his family in order to pioneer (go out door to door for a specified number of hours per month) – is unlikely. You can’t really be disfellowshipped for that. Probably she wasn’t told the real reason – so that’s forgivable.

However, the example of her grandmother rings true:

Not only was my family not invited to attend my 97-year-old grandmother’s funeral, but Brothers and Sisters from the Kingdom Hall contacted my family to say we were not welcome and would not be allowed in if we showed up – all because we were not of their faith! After her death, we discovered that for the last year of her life, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were telling her she would not go to the “new world” (equivalent of heaven) if she continued contact with her family.

The “new world” isn’t really heaven, of course, but the promise of everlasting life with other JWs (and no-one else) on a paradise earth after the apocalypse. As for the funeral – Crater’s family must really have been in deep doo-doo to be prohibited from attending. Normally they are more concerned that their “sheep” keep away from sacraments of other churches – no attending services, weddings or funerals!

The more tragic and common theme is simply that the grandmother was prohibited (using methods of appeal to authority) from contact with her son and the rest of the non-JW family. There is a deeper problem with those who have been disfellowshipped than with non-JWs who could conceivably be converted. These separations are one of the top issues for people who contact me.

When I was a JW, family were still allowed to spend at least some time with each other – but it seems that there has been a drift into more serious tinkering with family dynamics since then. Then, it was a matter of conscience – and since we didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas, we missed out on a lot of occasions that kin networks use to gather themselves together. There was also the sense of taint – that it was just better to minimize contact. The result of this is that I am only beginning to get to know most of my father’s extended family – I have 19 cousins on that side!

To get back to the article, I really did want to mention something else. This is something that outsiders don’t really know about:

From what I have experienced, the “elders” who oversee the individual Kingdom Halls are not trained faith leaders. All other religions I am familiar with have a leader who has extensive training for this position. The Jehovah’s Witness elders have no right to guide individuals or families.

The only “training” that elders and “ministerial servants” and “pioneers” get is the same dreary fare as that of the general congregation: endless repetitious mind-numbingly dull meetings, the “theocratic ministry school” meeting once a week – really more of a public speaking class – and the derivative highly interpreted and predigested materials from Bethel in New York. The hour-long “talks” (they don’t call them “sermons”) are read aloud from a script – their ministers are not even trusted to follow their own calling or relationship with God.

While there is a certain kind of appeal to the idea of spiritual leaders that arise spontaneously from the flock, the fact remains that none of their ministers have, or are allowed to have, any training or education at all outside the group. They have not studied Greek or Hebrew or Latin. They do not have divinity degrees, or educational background in sociology, psychology, religion, literature, acheology, history or philosophy/theology. Most of them have never attended even one college class.

They are elders because 1) they do what they are told to do and, 2) because they are likely the only males in the congregation who have reached a certain age and are sufficiently involved with the group. The other elders decide who gets awarded different kinds of rank. There is some lip-service paid to the idea of “serving” the congregation, but it’s pretty clearly a position of power – and a power often abused. The JW rules and regs are very strict and authoritarian to begin with – add any personal corruption to that and you start to hear even more heartbreaking narratives.

Members of the congregation are told over and over to humble themselves before the elders, to submit to the elders. They believe, since they have no access to the actual interpreters and decision-makers, that God wants them to trust utterly in these flawed, untrained, uneducated and often staggeringly unwise men.

Incidentally, because sexual issues are one of the top reasons that people leave or are kicked out of the JWs, these elders – like the hard right – are obsessed with sexual issues. Of course, they are in no way prepared to deal with these issues in any healthy way and create enormous damage. They also discourage any kind of professional counselling or the intervention of “worldly authorities” in any way. I remember there was a period when married couples were encouraged to report their spouse to the elders if they got adventuresome sexually (or in a few specific ways – oral sex seemed to be the big obsession). The goal at the time seemed to be to target women who might possibly enjoy sex – I don’t remember any discussion of pedophilia or sadism, for example, although there were people in my own congregation who had to deal with those issues. It was simply inconceivable that any of “God’s people” would be involved with those sorts of things.

When there is a matter of personal conscience to confront, most Jehovah’s Witnesses will capitulate to the decision of the elders or the guidance of the organization’s publications. They are fearful of even writing a letter to headquarters to ask a question. Such communications might end up in their file, and many JWs have a fine-tuned paranoia. If they present a difficult situation to their local elders, they draw attention to themselves, and “spiritual guidance” as an idea is so tangled up with reprimand and danger that most questions are simply never asked. A person with questions is automatically regarded as “rebellious youth” or “in danger of straying from the truth” or being too close to “worldly influences.” The best thing to do is remain attentive at meetings, parrot back the expected rote answers, and be seen going out in service as much as possible. Independent thought, any of them will tell you, is against their religion.

How is any of that conducive to spiritual growth?

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